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Bailing out states violates the Constitution's 'general welfare' clause

Republican senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.), are right to oppose legislation that would provide a broad federal bailout of highly indebted states. Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCardinal Dolan hails Supreme Court decision on churches, COVID-19 Cuomo blames new conservative majority for high court's COVID-19 decision Vaccine skepticism emerges as early test for Biden MORE of New York calls this legislative stance “toxic and poison,” but it is constitutionally required.  

As senators, including Florida’s Rick Scott and Texas’s Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE, made clear in a recent letter to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE, no one doubts that the federal government can and should assist states in meeting the coronavirus emergency. Nor can there be any reasonable objection that this aid will benefit certain states — especially New York, which has the majority of coronavirus cases — more than others. There is, however, a profound objection to any plan that would use federal resources to ensure that heavily indebted states need not reassess their policy priorities. These states find themselves in dire fiscal straits primarily because of underfunded pension plans for their public employees. Virtually all of these states are Democrat-run and three of them — Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — are facing a particularly calamitous fiscal situation.

Politics aside, bailing out unfunded state pension plans with federal dollars would violate the Constitution’s often ignored, but nevertheless binding, “general welfare” clause. Congress does not, in fact, have unfettered power to spend money as it sees fit. The Constitution permits it to tax, and by implication spend, “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) This language was neither puffery nor surplusage, but was added by the Constitution’s Framers for a compelling purpose.

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The Framers were determined to vest the federal government with sufficient authority to carry out its national purpose, but also to limit that power. These principles are reflected in numerous constitutional provisions and that document’s overall architecture. Thus, all congressional powers have some limit, some cabining principle. Just as the commerce clause is limited to the regulation of economic activities and does not permit Congress to exercise a general “police power” regulating people simply because they are here, so Congress’s ability to tax and spend is limited by the requirement that this must be for the general welfare.

This requirement stems from the Framers’ concern that large, powerful states would dominate the federal government and would use federal institutions to benefit their own interests, rather than the Union as a whole. Indeed, the question of how to ensure that a cabal of large states would not run roughshod over small states dominated much of the Constitutional Convention. It shaped many key constitutional provisions, including the bicameral federal legislature, with all states having equal representation in the Senate, the apportionment requirement for direct federal taxes, and the language mandating that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  

Even such an ardent proponent of a strong federal government as Alexander Hamilton was sufficiently concerned about states acting selfishly that he argued initially for abolishing the states as independent sovereigns altogether because “states will prefer their particular concerns to the general welfare.” Eventually, this concern resulted in the constitutional language that required the federal government to operate for the general welfare of the entire nation. Notably, this language is found both in the Constitution’s preamble and Article I, Section 8, which enumerates Congress’s powers. And, as is made clear in an early draft of the general welfare clause, the Framers understood the phrase to mean that “which may concern the common interests of the Union.”

This understanding of the clause is similarly revealed in a debate that took place in September 1787, near the Convention’s end, after the general welfare language had taken its final form.  This debate concerned whether an additional provision should be included in the Constitution specifically vesting the federal government with the power to build canals, which would benefit some states more than others. Some thought yes; others argued that tasks such as canal-building should be the responsibility of the states that would directly benefit. Regardless of this disagreement, they all appeared to have shared the same view that such authority — which today we would take for granted as being well within Congress’s spending power — was not already present.

As in other areas, after the Constitution’s ratification, the Framers took different views of how far the spending power could go. Hamilton, always the preeminent Federalist, took the position that the power to tax and spend constituted a separate grant of authority to Congress, while James Madison believed it was merely a support for Congress’s otherwise enumerated powers.  Hamilton’s view prevailed and was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1936 case of United States v. Butler. The court did not, however, determine the meaning of “general welfare” in Butler, except to note that Hamilton understood it to mean “the purpose must be ‘general, and not local.’”

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To be sure, the definition of what types of expenditures advance general welfare has been much debated throughout U.S. history. Prior to the Civil War, a stringent definition prevailed, with Congress vigorously debating expenditures for various types of infrastructure projects and presidents vetoing spending bills that they believed served local needs and did not sufficiently advance general welfare. Post-Civil War, and particularly following the New Deal, a far broader federal spending pattern emerged. This reflected the view that, using federal dollars to pay the costs of natural disasters and similar emergencies, or various infrastructure projects, while benefiting some states more than others at any given point in time, would benefit the nation as a whole in the long run. This practice broadened the understanding of what expenditures served the national interest, but it did not and could not abolish the general welfare requirement altogether.

Thus, however broad Congress’s power to tax and spend may be, this remains the fundamental limitation — expenditures must promote national, rather than local, interests. And it is difficult to imagine a more locally-oriented program than one designed to prop up the fiscal choices of a group of states — to benefit state and municipal government employees by establishing generous, underfunded pension systems — at the expense of other states. Significantly, numerous states repeatedly have rejected similar pension arrangements for themselves, vividly manifesting their view that this was not in their best interests or conducive to general welfare.  Indeed, by subsidizing a particular vision of what constitutes a proper state government, one of the basic justifications for our federalist system — that states can make their own choices as laboratories — would be discarded. True federalism requires that the federal government neither coerces states nor imposes on states’ fiscal burdens that properly belong to individual states that have incurred them.

Senate Republicans have every right, and all senators have an equal obligation, to ensure that any funding legislation meets the general welfare requirement, so that federal dollars cannot be used to pay, either directly or indirectly, for the repair of long-term fiscal liabilities of any recipient state.  

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and have litigated separation-of-powers cases, representing states in challenges to ObamaCare and the federal Clean Power Plan.